When snowshoeing through the woods this winter, there’s a good chance you’ll come across tracks of cottontail rabbits or snowshoe hares. Their numbers seem to be high this season, as part of a natural population cycle.
Most animals go through some sort of population cycle. Because hares and rabbits breed like – well, like rabbits – their numbers grow each year. But when there are too many rabbits in a given area, things start to go badly. They eat food faster than the plants can grow; diseases spread easily because the animals are in close contact with each other; and above all, wolves and other predators become more numerous. Eventually it all becomes too much and the population plummets.
With fewer rabbits in the woods, plants can recover. Diseases are less prevalent. And predators either move on or go through their own population crash. And the whole cycle begins again.
With rabbits and hares, the cycle tends to run for about ten years from peak to peak. This isn’t a fixed rule, of course – sometimes the numbers stay relatively stable for several years, or plummet suddenly when a particularly virulent disease sweeps through a population.
The cycle also varies a bit across the province, but in general Muskoka seems to be seeing fairly high numbers of rabbits and hares right now.
Rabbits and hares are a bit elusive, so this is the best time of year to tell what’s happening in your particularly part of Muskoka, thanks to the telltale tracks that all animals leave in the snow.
There are five species of rabbits and hares in Ontario, but in Muskoka you’ll only likely to encounter two of them (two others are found only in the far north, and a third – the accidentally-released European Hare – is mainly found in the southwest). In Muskoka, we’re just about at the northern edge of the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit’s range, and in the southern range of the Snowshoe Hare.
Eastern Cottontails are the smallest of Ontario’s lagomorphs (the family that includes rabbits and hares). Cottontails are the quintessential fluffy-tailed bunny rabbits, cute little things with relatively short ears and their namesake white tail. They love “edge” habitat – hedgerows, dense patches of sumac, or the scrubby areas along the edge of a woodlot: anything that gives them access to dense undergrowth where they can dart to escape a predator, but also lets them find little open patches to bask in the sun, particularly in winter since they’re not well adapted to bitter cold.
Snowshoe hares, on the other hand, do very well in winter. They get their name from their enormous hind feet, which function a bit like a snowshoe and help them travel on top of the snow. Unlike cottontails, snowshoe hares grow a white coat in the fall which helps them hide in winter. Unfortunately for them, that white coat can backfire if the snow arrives late or not at all: a white hare glows like a neon sign against brown leaves, giving predators a distinct advantage.
Snowshoe hares also like plenty of undergrowth to hide in, but they’re also superb at running away from predators. They can leap up to three metres in a single bound, and travel up to 45 km/h, zig-zagging through the woods until they reach the safety of a dense patch of cover.
Telling their tracks apart is fairly simple, thanks to the size of the snowshoe hare’s feet. Each hind foot track can be as much as six inches long and four inches wide. Nothing else in the woods makes tracks quite like a snowshoe hare.
Rabbit tracks, on the other hand, are smaller – the hind feet are about half the size of a snowshoe hare’s. It can be easy to confuse rabbit tracks and squirrel tracks, particularly in fluffy now. In crisp snow, squirrel tracks will show distinct fingers. Also, if you were to draw a rectangle around the four footprints of a bounding squirrel, it would tend to be wide or even square; a rabbit’s track shape is longer, with the rear feet landing close together, and well in front of the forefeet.
Rabbits and hares, of course, are not a gardener’s favourite animals – they don’t draw a distinction between wild roses and freshly-planted tea roses, and will happily feast on both.
The best way to keep them out of your garden may actually be to give them a nicer home in the woods. If you have any trees pruned, have the branches piled in small heaps in the woods well away from the cottage, creating some ideal habitat in the woods rather than in your beautifully-landscaped yard. You can even drag your Christmas tree off into the woods to have the same effect.
And if you do sustain damage from rabbits or hares this winter, you can at least take solace in the fact that the assault won’t last: a population crash is coming sooner or later.